At what cost?

As a professional trainer, I hear a lot of disturbing stories. One local trainer routinely advises owners of reactive dogs to briefly hang their dogs from prong collars when the dogs lunge and bark. The same facility told one of my clients to pull her nervous dog’s ear or pinch his flank if he stopped paying attention. Another recent client was advised by one of her friends on Facebook to step in front of her aggressive dog whenever the dog began growling at anyone and then to stare the dog down (which, not surprisingly, resulted in a pretty severe bite to her leg).

Photo by Marie Carter

Photo by Marie Carter

With all of these disturbing stories, a common thread runs through. The owners really love their dogs, and were simply following the advice that had been given to them. In many cases, these people were desperate to fix a serious problem. These weren’t acts of abuse – they were honest attempts to fix a problem by people who cared enough about their dogs to try something instead of just getting rid of their pet.

The world is rife with dog training advice. Everybody’s an expert! When an old acquaintance of mine asked her Facebook friends how to solve puppy nipping, she received lots of replies almost instantly. Flick the puppy’s nose. Use Tabasco sauce. Use a squirt bottle. Hold the puppy’s mouth shut if she nips. The more I read, the more I cringed. It’s really true that you get what you pay for, and free advice from your friends, coworkers, and neighbors could do more harm than good.

But what do you do if your trainer tells you to do something that doesn’t feel right? How can you decide which advice to follow and which could do more harm than good?

On the first week of any Beginning training class I teach, I tell my students two things. They are the experts on their dogs. And their dogs are counting on them to protect them.

Remember this. You are the expert on your dog. Not your trainer, or your vet, or your groomer. Not me. You. And your dog is counting on you to look out for him.

If someone tells you to do something to your dog that makes you uncomfortable, you are always within your rights to say no. I love it when my students tell me that they’d like to modify an exercise! It lets me know that the student is committed to doing what’s right for the dog in front of them at that moment, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When determining what’s right for your dog, a little critical reasoning can go a long way. If the trainer at your dog’s daycare tells you to use a shaker can (a soda can full of pennies) anytime your dog lunges or barks on leash, don’t just accept that advice on blind faith. Instead, think through the behavioral contingencies. In the best case scenario, what will my dog learn (that lunging and barking makes something unpleasant happen so she should be quiet instead)? In the worst case scenario, what will my dog learn (that the appearance of triggers which already make her upset cause her owner to do something very unpleasant – thus making her more sensitive to the appearance of those triggers in the future)? Ask yourself whether you’re comfortable with the risks posed by the training advice. If your dog becomes more frantic and reactive at the appearance of triggers after you use the shaker can, are you prepared to put in the extra time solving the problem you made worse? If you’re not willing to accept the worse-case scenario, is there a different training option you might try instead?

The bottom line is that the world is full of people who will give you free advice on how to live with, handle, manage, and train your dog. Just remember that you get what you pay for. There are lots of people out there who do truly horrible things to dogs in the name of training, and because dogs largely put up with it these methods are touted as effective without thought to the potential fallout, including physical damage and the very real strain that aversive techniques put on your relationship with your dog. Sure, free advice might solve your dog’s behavioral problem. But at what cost?

13 responses to “At what cost?

  1. Yes! I became a trainer because of some of these exact methods were suggested to me by a trainer for hire. I learned a different way, positive reinforcement! Thanks for posting :)

  2. Back in the 1970’s, I took a rowdy young dog to obedience training, and I hated it. Crank and yank, and if your dog did something right, praise had to be loud and enthusiastic–which made the dog bounce and pull again. If I praised quietly, I got yelled at. If I praised loudly, I was supposed to yank the dog who understandably got excited. It was terribly frustrating. I finished the course, and swore never again. And then, when I got a pair of young, rowdy dogs from a rescue in 2000, I had to take them to class. And wow, what a difference! We were all happy. Now, when I come out of a rally ring with my dog, people comment on how happy she is to work with me. And I’m old and confident and knowledgeable enough to be ready to tell those with suggestions on how to punish my dog for something no, and why not, and what I’ll think about trying instead.

  3. Fabulous words. Right on the mark! I wish everyone could see this. And that no one would ever bring a dog into their home without being ready with the time and effort to train it well and with appropriate measures.

  4. This is an awesome article! May I use this, with your credit name on it? Thanks for all the advice!

  5. Thank you!!! Reposted on my blog!

  6. Pingback: Don’t quit your day job. | D is for dog

  7. Thank you, thank you. You are one excellent trainer. I hope every dog club refers all their trainers to this site to read your words so they can be spread far and wide.
    Like you tell little kids, if it doesn’t feel right say NO. Dog owners if it isn’t something you would do to yourself then THINK no I won’t do that to my dog.
    Thank you again from all the dogs whose owners are lucky enough to read your words and heed your words.

  8. I have a bishon shih tzu mix who is a lunge and bark little man. Help!

  9. Yes, I still hear some of those stories, even from certified dog trainers. A bit ago the APDT and IAABC issued a position statement on LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) as a guideline for training. I then found several certified dog trainers who told me that they use LIMA sometimes, or when other things don’t work. Neither of which makes any sense.

  10. I just discovered your blog, and hopefully not too late for my pup. Gypsy is an almost-6-month-old lab mix who has been painfully shy since I brought her home from the shelter at ten weeks old. I trained her myself from day one, based on some books a friend gave me, with techniques that I now recognize as too aversive for a sweet soul like her. I’d set her up for failure, then punish her once she inevitably did fail (e.g., placing a treat on the couch, just to yank on her leash when she jumped up for it). Gypsy responded well enough at first–she’s certainly a quick learner–but in the past month things have started to sour.

    Gypsy still happily greets me at the door and is good for a morning snuggle on the floor after I let her out of her crate in the morning. But she has stopped making eye contact (other than after I’ve told her to “wait” before going through a door or eating her meals), exhibits signs of fear when I’m around (tail tucked, nervous lip-licking, hunched shoulders, etc.), and will sit on the other side of the room rather than get near me. She’s even started recoiling when I reach out to pet her, which absolutely breaks my heart. She’ll still play fetch or tug-of-war eagerly–and with a happy wag of her tail–but in most other situations she seems afraid of me.

    What do I need to do to regain her trust? Is this just another puppy phase, or have I traumatized my dog? I’ve replaced leash tugs with clicks and treats, what else do I need to do?

    Much thanks for any advice.

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